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Is teaching ethics the responsibility of schools?

February 8, 2015

With all that is happening around the world to challenge our sense of what is right and wrong, I wonder if schools are taking their rightful place in the conversation, doing what we can to advance a deeper understanding of the moral and ethical questions before us.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ethics “as moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior.”  If we dig a little deeper into the definitions of moral principles we find: 1) moral is “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior;” and 2) principle is “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior.”  Are there fundamental truths of right and wrong that govern all human behavior?  If so, what are they?  This very idea has been debated in philosophical circles for many years with little resolution on the horizon.  Moral relativism surfaces when a variety of philosophical positions, centered around differences in moral judgments with people from different cultures, makes it challenging to come to a shared understanding of right and wrong.

With recent events unraveling in war-torn Syria, there is no better time to engage in conversation about ethics and moral responsibility.  The Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) has created chaos in the region and around the world with their blatant disrespect for human life through beheadings and burning their prisoners alive.  I think outside ISIS’s members or sympathizers we could all agree that the moral principle of “valuing human life” has been terribly violated.  There is expressed outrage around the world for these events.  Why doesn’t ISIS see human life in the same way as the rest of the world does?  Is this an example of moral relativism?  Do they believe that it is OK to sacrifice innocent people as an act of war against what they perceive to be their “aggressors?”  I can’t imagine how they would justify such acts, and yet they must believe that they are justified to carry them out.  Does justified equate with them believing it is morally right to do so?

The Washington Post ( February 5) reported on President Obama’s recent speech on ethics.

His latest challenge came Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast. At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

He continues by challenging us to think beyond ourselves.

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

President Obama was widely criticized by many politicians and pundits, especially from the conservative right.  But I wonder if what he was doing was pointing out that throughout human history we have been divided on the moral principle of “valuing human life.”  There is a certain moral relativism that exists when we look closely at the ethics of “valuing human life.”  Should it be so?  I personally don’t think so, but then again I was not raised in a society where I was oppressed for decades, seeing my own life not valued by those around me.  Some from the Christian right may not like how Obama opened the door on the question of the moral relativism of human life, but he was speaking the truth.  Can we face the truth?

Maybe we have to go back to the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”  Would any of us want to be burned alive?  I don’t think so, at least not if we had the choice.  Maybe that could answer the question for ISIS members and their sympathizers.

Albert Schweitzer was quoted as saying:

The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings. (click here)

He seems to be implying that unless we sit down and gain empathy with our fellow human beings, we will struggle developing a universal moral principle that all human life is valuable and should be respected.  Solidarity with our fellow human beings requires that we build trust and credibility with them so that we can honestly dialogue around life’s challenging issues.  Clearly, this is not happening almost anywhere in the world today.  Certainly not on the world’s political stage.

Our individual and collective reputation is dependent upon our ability to build trust and credibility.  We need to be perceived as honest, fair, and trusting.  If not, then our ability to openly dialogue is compromised.

It is so important that we begin the teaching of ethics early in a child’s schooling.  Students need to develop the knowledge, skills, values, and experience discussing these important challenges we face.  While we don’t have to teach a specific set of moral principles, we should be teaching students how to analyze and evaluate their beliefs and those of others from different cultures.  In truth, few decisions are completely right or wrong.  For many challenges we face, there are two sides to every issue.

When we look at a typical student’s course of study in public or private school, we will generally find no curriculum dealing with ethical decision-making or “leading the good life.” (see an excellent post on Brain Pickings, February 8)  While some teachers may venture into conversations ethics, it is true that it depends on the school you attend, the teacher you have, or the course you are taking.  Luck of the draw!  To me, random chance isn’t good enough given the high-stakes we face in our chaotic world.  We will need educated, empathetic, patient and thoughtful students to think their way towards better solutions.

Here are some issues our students will face:

  • a world population that cannot feed all of its members.  “According to the most recent estimates, in 2011, 17 percent of people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25 a day. That’s down from 43 percent in 1990 and 52 percent in 1981.”  (World Bank)
  • a changing climate that presents with drastic weather changes impacting billions of people.
  • managing freshwater supplies on the planet so that we all humans have access to drinkable water (National Geographic’s water crisis)
  • managing our energy supplies so that developing nations have the opportunity to bring a higher-quality of life to their people.  The United States has fewer than 5% of the world’s population but accounts for almost 20% of the world’s energy consumption. (United States Energy Information Administration)
  • honesty, transparency and accountability in financial, corporate and non-profit organizations (StockPickSystems, the collapse of the housing market in 2008 due to financial and corporate greed)

Of course the list could go on-and-on.  The point being that if we want students to be educated to deal with our complex and ever-changing world, they will need the ethical decision-making skills to understand, manage, and responsibly deal with these and other issues.  This will only happen if we expect them to grapple with them now within the context of learning about ethics, moral principles, and moral relativism.  While some of this education happens in their family, school can be a more objective place to engage in the learning and dialogue.

As educators, can we honestly say that our students are well-educated unless they graduate with a firm understanding of ethical behavior?  I don’t think so.

As educators, the implication for us is that we have to be good role models for openly addressing the moral principles present in modern society.  Is our leadership in classrooms and schools showing students what ethical behavior constitutes?  Like the society at large, some educators are good role models and some are definitely not (Cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools, AJC report).

As educators, we should take an ethics inventory of our curricula and our school programs.  Do we support ethics education throughout our curricula or are we so obsessed with coverage of content that we fail to integrate ethics into our work?  Do we have advisory programs that are vehicles for ethics education and are we developing our faculty to deliver the programs effectively?  How are we handling cyber-ethics in our schools?  Do we only deal with it by punishing those who abuse our policies or do we have an integrated curriculum that helps students manage the complex world of the internet?

These and other questions are on my mind as I think about our responsibility as educators to help shape the next generation of ethical citizens.  When we look across the landscape, there are definitely beacons of hope; however, it is discouraging at times to see how poorly we treat one another, look no further than our public officials.  And it is equally discouraging to see how utterly disrespectful we are of human life, look no further than ISIS burning or beheading its prisoners.  Some would criticize me for putting those two examples in the same paragraph, like the criticism Obama received after his recent speech, but I would ask the critics isn’t it possible that the first example could eventually lead a person or group to manifest behaviors that were morally irresponsible?  History is full of examples I think.

So let me leave you with the question: What is a school’s role in teaching ethics?

 

 

 

 

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